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The Paradox of Pilots

As many organizations in business and government try to capture some of the magic created by network communication, they often and understandably formulate strategies beginning with “pilots.”

“Pilots” are a paradox. When it comes to creating networks for customers, partners, and employees or citizens, designation of “pilot” status—by definition an experiment—can doom a project to failure.

This seems counterintuitive. Isn’t it logical that that before a significant investment is made (both in people and technology) an organization should have confidence that a particular solution will succeed?

People, connection, and exchange

Networks are different. The break down in business logic lies in the assumption that garnering value from networks is a technology problem. It is not. It is more often a people problem.

Value creation depends on 3 simple elements—people, connection, and exchange. The more people in the network, the greater the number of connections, and the more content that those people exchange across the connections, the greater the opportunity to build total network value—something that a business or government can use. Success, then, depends upon people and how they behave.

Conversely, the role of technology is to support compelling participant experiences. One must have world-class technology. But rarely is technology the key determinant of success. Nor is it the primary driver of cost though that is often the primary justification for assigning “pilot” status.

What happens in “pilots” is that organizations effectively deprive the network of the very elements that build value—people, connection, and exchange—regardless of the technology used. Here is how.

Pilots and network competency

In our experience there are 4 key elements of success in network implementations:

    • Clearly defined business objectives,
    • a commitment to organizational investments,
    • a thoughtfully crafted customer experience, and,
    • a compelling value proposition to network participants — your customers, partners, employees, and citizens.

“Pilots” often have few if any of these characteristics.

First, organizations often implement pilots with fuzzy business objectives. They don’t clearly define what a success would look like. (Element 1) When would the rally banner fly?

Second, pilots by design limit organizational investment—not just money, but commitment to behavioral change necessary to make distributed communication and listening work. (Element 2) Networks with limited nourishment often fail. They are not self-sustaining.

Third it is difficult to design appropriate participant experiences that lead to well-defined outcomes. (Element 3) when business objectives are fuzzy. What’s fun about an experiment when no real change is a foot?

And finally, pilots represent limited value to potential participants. Why would any participant invest their time and energy in something that may not be around and that clearly does not enjoy unqualified executive support? (Element 4) Competing for social attention with an experiment is not exactly a winning strategy.

What is in the way?

If pilots are often doomed to fail, what is in the way of success?

First, today’s executives have rarely used social tools to achieve career success, so their commitment to what they don’t understand is limited—and that often predetermines outcomes. Few executives would view a commitment to lead a communications experiment as a thrilling career move.

The irony is that their business judgment and experience are often critical to success. Non-involvement is fatal.

Second, without apparent competitive pressures organizations that have been spectacularly successful by using traditional business processes have little incentive to change. Rigid organizational charts, linear communication structures, accountability based on territorial “ownership” of customers, accounts, and job functions, and messaging through traditional advertising have served them well.

Ironically, those organizations are also most likely to implement pilots that are limited in scope and investment. An additional irony is that those organizations that would often recognize the greatest value from networks are the most likely to fail in implementing them—especially on an experimental basis.

When executives convene to discuss the “social media thing” they hesitate. They often stop with Facebook pages and Twitter strategies. If they get farther, poorly designed pilots are often the outcome.

Third, organizations often define the transformational shift that is enabled by technology as a technology problem. Understanding that success in social communication is highly dependent on having world-class technology platforms, that is probably not the most effective way to look at it.

Unlike transactional systems, networks are fundamentally about communications and human behavior. It is far too easy for executives to characterize fundamental business decisions as IT issues. Like so many things in life, the answers we get depend upon the questions we ask.

I am not saying that pilots can never work. They can. They can work when they are episodic (for a limited duration), when they enjoy executive support, when they achieve results, when they have clearly defined business objectives and when participants truly achieve something remarkable—often deserved recognition—pilots can work. They can work when organizations make the necessary investments of time, energy, money and human resources—even though labeled a pilot.

They can also work when pilots serve as a step towards a broader commitment to taking the social communications journey. This happens when organizations recognize that social communication and listening can fundamentally enhance business models—even when those models have been developed over decades.

These are the conditions that lead to broad based participation whether a project is labeled as a pilot or not.

All in?

The bottom line is clear. Without commitment, investment, and clarity, pilots rarely achieve the scale—especially standing alone—to generate meaningful value. They rarely build the trust, confidence, and understanding to foster people, connection and exchange that make networks work.

That is the paradox of pilots. They are too often not low cost experiments that tell us much, in the end. They are in fact, more often, high cost, high-risk strategies from which we are often destined to draw the wrong conclusions.

Twitter @kpkfusion

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Great post. One thing I think is useful to think about pilots is that it is a Test. And to properly run a test, you need to run it with full capability, thought, etc. For example, if Coke Zero is thinking about rolling out a fleet of street marketers to campuses across the U.S., they may start with a test of the concept. But to test properly they need to pick 4-5 different campuses (as differences in variables) and to fully staff each one. Also, they will run the test a few times (weekdays, weekends, different hours) before deciding if it is working or not.